There is a temptation common to foreign correspondents immersed in a region of agonised turmoil: to believe that they are witnessing events that, even in the bloodiest way, represent some kind of progress. Tom Phillips does not suffer from that affliction. He retired in July after two years as British ambassador to Saudi Arabia and, previously, four years as ambassador to Israel. His conclusion is that there may never be peace between Israel and Palestinians. Neither side has leaders capable of making a deal; the window for a “two-state solution” may already have closed, because of Israeli settlement building on the West Bank and demographic changes; he can envisage no other route to peace.
This is a stunningly bleak conclusion from one who has been professionally committed to trying to advance a solution. But he is right to say it. The reminder that permanent failure is an option—“the most likely outcome,” in his view—is a retort to those leaders whose instinct is to kick negotiations perpetually down the road in search of a sliver more advantage, or to avoid the immediate sacrifice of a deal. They should look head-on at the implications if there is no deal, ever.
Not everyone agrees. George Mitchell, Democratic powerbroker in the US Senate for years, and former special envoy to both Northern Ireland and the Middle East, has built a career out of the conviction that the world’s worst problems can be solved by face-to-face negotiation. He acknowledges that in 60-odd years in the Middle East, the talking cure has not yet prevailed. But he was behind the 1998 Good Friday agreement, useful supporting evidence for his belief, even if some of the deal’s architects, including Tony Blair, accepted compliments too readily for having fashioned a model for resolving all kinds of sectarian conflict.
In the eurozone crisis, some leaders have now looked properly at the effects of failure. They are edging towards part of the answer, says George Soros. But he argues that there is only one route through the crisis, much of it unpalatable to voters—and hence to leaders. This is the nature now of politics; indeed, one big theme behind the Prospect Think Tank Awards 2012 was whether democracy can cope with the age of austerity. Jean-Claude Juncker famously remarked that “We know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected when we do it”; as prime minister of Luxembourg since 1995, he has found perhaps the only easy answer—to lead a tiny, very rich country. Most leaders must work harder than in the past to show in difficult times, they have explored all options. To borrow Mitchell’s principle, they will have to talk their way through to a new future; our awards aim to encourage exactly that debate. In Westminster, Nick Clegg has mishandled the path to House of Lords reform, but he is right on the central point: that voters will demand ever more legitimacy from their leaders.
And when the words run out, there are numbers. The news that physicists had found the Higgs boson confirmed some of the greatest intellectual work ever carried out. True, the human race may not be able to resolve territorial disputes or run a stable currency bloc but it has established why the universe has structure. We should recognise this at least as progress, and of an astounding kind.